‘Angry and upset, but confused': Alliances can amplify neighborhood voices

Websites armed with online petitions and site plans, packed-to-the-brim public hearings with dozens of speakers, and applications to amend the town zoning regulations — neighborhood opposition groups have been particularly loud in 2017.

But what’s causing this boom in community complaints? Are the incoming projects that Ridgefield has seen proposed over the last year — a drug rehab facility, a skating rink, and now a bed-and-breakfast — bad enough to warrant three separate alliances in town that oppose commercial uses in residential-zoned areas?

Those in favor of protecting Ridgefield neighborhoods believe it’s a cause worth championing, while the people elected — and hired — to debate local zoning laws notice the increased volume but see it as misplaced.

“People are coming to us not only angry and upset, but confused,” said Rebecca Mucchetti, chairwoman of the town Planning and Zoning Commission, at a recent public hearing.  

“I am concerned about the public anxiety that we’ve seen this year,” she added.

Mucchetti had asked the commission to discuss ideas to make its process more understandable to residents who often show up to zoning meetings with disdain for a plan before the commission even reviews it.

“Part of this is being driven by social media, and we can’t do anything about that,” she said.

Alphabet soup

The trend toward instant, online communication seems to have foothold in Ridgefield, where the Circle Drive Neighbors Alliance (CDNA) and the Peaceable Neighbors Alliance (PNA) announced this fall that they would be joining forces to challenge applications in their respective neighborhoods.

The PNA was joined by the Ridgefield Neighborhood Preservation Alliance (RNPA) in its fight against a private skate club on Peaceable Street in the summer. The RNPA was responsible for chasing out a proposed drug rehab facility on Old West Mountain Road in January.  

The alliance of neighborhood groups has left some residents concerned that complex land use regulations can be easily misinterpreted in the age of social media.

“What the Internet and social media have done is make it easier to disseminate information which oftentimes, unfortunately, is used to disseminate incomplete or incorrect information,” said Ridgefield resident and attorney Bob Jewell, who specializes in land use laws.  

“Zoning issues, particularly, are somewhat complicated, and it is very easy for people who are unfamiliar with its intricacies to, more often than not, spread misinformation.”

Sudden attention

Mucchetti and Jewell’s observations share a common thread: For most people, planning and zoning regulations are a vague force that seem to have little to do with day-to-day life.

“Land use is funny, because most people don’t pay any attention to it until someone files an application that affects them directly,” Jewell said.

For the commission, this isn’t a new reality.

“If we’re talking about a bed-and-breakfast, or the idea of a winter club, those are emotional issues for people about their neighborhoods,” said commission member Charles Robbins at the meeting.

Ultimately, Mucchetti said, the commission makes its decision based on the regulations — not emotion.

“We are not the Board of Ed, or the Board of Finance, or the Board of Selectmen — we are bound by the regulations.”

Election year

Regulations can be changed, but it’s an uphill battle.

That’s the lesson Jeff Hansen, the founder of the PNA, found out on Sept. 19, when the commission denied his application to strike the phrase “private clubs” from the town’s special permit regulations.

“The jury is out on the effect of the community activism,” Hansen told The Press.

“Until we see some changes in regulations or a Planning and Zoning Commission denial of certain commercial projects, we cannot pass final judgment,” he added.

“If we do not see changes, the Ridgefield residents will have to continue to pressure elected officials to support its community needs and vision for Ridgefield.”

Candidates for the Planning and Zoning Commission in this year’s election say they’re aware of people’s concerns.

Joe Dowdell, one of two candidates running for a seat on the commission who is not also an incumbent, said he is open to the idea of changing regulations.

“I support efforts to clarify the zoning regulations, remove ambiguities, and discuss any changes transparently with residents,” said Dowdell, a Democrat who ran for state representative of the 111th District in 2016.

“It’s not a new trend that we want to protect our families and our assets,” he said.